Ladies and Gentlemen, will you take your seats please!
Imagine arriving for a play with a ticket that leads you to a solitary piece of cardboard in a smelly doorway on Clapham High Street. You sit down. Slowly, you notice a few of the people passing you on the busy street are beginning to look familiar…
The irresistible allure of site-specific theatre is that it can occur just about anywhere. Clapham High Street is a hectic place more suitable for a Saturday morning shopping frenzy than a theatre production. Yet it is because of this that site-specific theatre works so well – drawing on its surroundings, physical and emotional, to deliver a unique performance.
Site-specific theatre happens at that special stage when half the audience know the score and half are wondering just what the hell is going on. If you are in the informed half of the group this division must at least double your enjoyment of the show; you get to be smugly unsurprised by whatever the production throws at you, while revelling in the other half’s initial bewilderment, surprise and enjoyment. It is not a new genre, but it is taking on a whole new sense of cool. With recent productions taking place in sites as diverse as disused warehouses and busy train stations, it has moved from entertainment enjoyed just by the most avant-garde of theatre-goers to the mainstream audience.
As a theatre-form ‘site-specific’ can be briefly defined as a production that takes direct inspiration from the location in which it is performed. However, many theatre companies cheat by simply staging a traditional play in a new surrounding. I spoke to Caroline Garland, co-founder and associate director of Kilter Theatre Company, to try and clear up this issue. She persuasively argues that a true site-specific work must enter its space with no previous agenda and devise from there.
Let us return to that solitary piece of smelly cardboard for a moment. Caroline was one of those familiar faces walking up and down Clapham High Street and highlights a few moments during the play that she would describe as truly site-specific. At one point, while ‘off stage’, she rings a public telephone box and an audience member is encouraged to answer. This part of the play was devised purely because the telephone box inspired it and yet is instrumental within the work. Another scene occurs down a grimy alleyway. During the devising process, the actors were asked how this area made them feel and the result was a particularly dark scene in the play. However, with no negative implication, Caroline points out that the characters in the play were already at least partly formed before they reached the High Street and this stopped the play being a thoroughbred piece of site-specific theatre.
Instead, she argues, phases of site-specific theatre exist, starting with a straightforward production of Hamlet that is performed, for example, in a castle, through to a play that is devised entirely on-site. The cut-off point for her comes with the question of whether the play can tour. If it can, then it is not site-specific. There is considerable debate at the moment as to whether the terminology used should be changed to highlight these differences. Caroline favours ‘site-responsive’ as it draws attention to the fact that the play must be a direct response to the site it appears in.
I recently appeared as an extra in a site-specific production. The play was called Remote Patrol and was brought into being by the company Caroline co-founded, Kilter, a ‘sustainable theatre company’ that engages its audiences in ‘issues surrounding the environment, social justice and English heritage’. The play was devised and performed in a disused cemetery and chapel. The production team decided to only use props created from materials they had already found in the space. A surprising array of treasures were unearthed and were then used to help form the play itself.
The result was a deeply atmospheric and moving production that made the audience re-engage with an area many knew but had neglected. By being an extra (a drone, just in case you were curious), I was able to spy on the unsuspecting audience from various concealed vantage points as they made their way around the cemetery. As I repeatedly saw what seemed like exaggerated expressions of bemusement, joy, amusement and delight, I wondered if these were the faces people normally pulled in the darkness of a traditional auditorium. How wonderful then that the audience members could express them in the open, albeit unaware they were being watched from behind a fir tree by a renegade drone…
Speaking to Caroline about this observation demonstrated exactly why she is so enamoured with site-specific theatre. With traditional theatre, the audience is never really more than a spectator; the necessary level of engagement can be very low. With site-specific, the audience is often likely to experience exactly what the actors are themselves experiencing. For example, to return to the grimy alleyway, by creating work that directly responds to the emotions felt by the actors in that space, the audience’s reaction to the alley is predicted and catered for. The physical aspect of site-specific work has a similar affect as the audiences are often literally within a hair’s breadth of their actors. As with the audience member answering the public telephone, they are frequently actively involved in the play; they become, willingly and knowingly or not, part of the cast. In her considerable experience, Caroline has found that the audience is nearly always positively surprised by these encounters. She describes the experience as an adventure that requires bravery and trust in the face of the unknown; everyone participates and comes out the end smiling.
We end our chat by discussing the future of site-specific theatre and I learn that, although it has been around for a while (its heyday was in the 70’s), it is undergoing a considerable revival, which, we both agree, is jolly exciting.
Illustration by Robert Nicol (www.robert-nicol.co.uk)